“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.” I really never understood until later in life, the significance of the fig tree in scripture. The reason being is we did not have fig trees in East Tennessee when I was a kid. My first taste of fig was some mysterious sweet, tasty goo in the middle of a cake-like cookie substance, and packaged in a bright yellow Nabisco wrapper. You remember, Fig Newtons those little sweet treats that sort of resembles the fig it contains.
Unfortunately, like the fig, we have turned so many things, including our relationships, into something that does not resemble the source from which they came. We often toss aside our key connections with people because of misunderstandings, failures to communicate, and a growing lack of empathy and compassion. It should not surprise us to find Jesus using the fig tree as a metaphor in his teachings, because it was a prolific ancient food source. Also, its abundant fruit represented the outward sign of a healthy tree, a tree whose life purpose was to provide nutrition and health for all it fed.
In scripture, the fig tree was a common symbol for Israel, whose fruit of righteousness would be the source of God’s grace for so many. The fig tree to which Jesus referred, may also be we Christians, who have heard the gospel of Christ, and serve as witnesses of his grace. Unfortunately, like the people of Israel whose purpose was to reflect God’s mission of reconciling love in the world, we toohave turned away from God. We turn away from God, when we follow our own way, rather than the “Way of reconciling love.” We all say we want to follow the Way of Jesus, we want to love one another, care for one another, and restore broken relationships, but we struggle with the hard work of repentance.
We all need to repent because we all have missed the mark. We all have hurt one another. We all have and will fail one another. Yes, we all are sinners, but God is the God of mercy and not vengeance. God is calling us back into loving relationship, but we forget that, and some even believe that the tragedies, failures, and suffering of this life are judgments put upon us by a vengeful God, who seeks to pay us back for our sin, but that is not the character of Jesus Christ.
Sin and Circumstances
This misconception that God creates tragic circumstances to punish us for our failures may come from “certain strands of the Old Testament wisdom traditions (that) seem to assume that suffering and death are the result of sin, whereas righteousness results in life and peace.” (2) Jesus turns the tables on this idea when he in today’s reading, he responded to the crowd who thought “the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices,” and the story of the“eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them” suffered, because they were great sinners.
Jesus said, “ I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” In other words, we cannotconclude that God doles out sin speeding tickets when we exceed the limits of God’s relational traffic laws. Stuff in life just happens and most of it is beyond our control, and none of it is a result of God’s judgment and punishment on us. Therefore, the practice of repentance is not something we do to avoid a punishment we expect from God. Repentance is how we respond and accept God’s grace, when we have decided it is no longer important or necessary. We are called to be at peace with God and with one another, not out of fear, but because love awaits the sinner who comes back to God.
God does not turn from us
Some of us misunderstand what repentance really means. I used to think that repentance was merely a God apology I say, and then I could move on to life as normal. Repentance is much more than a rote weekly apology to God for “those things done and left undone.” Wikipedia defines repentance as “the activity of reviewing one’s actions and feeling regret for past wrongs, (and here is the key) which is accompanied by commitment to change for the better.” Repentance is changing. “Repentance is … the act of constantly turning to Christ” (1) and trusting in him as much has he trusts in us.
When our faith seems so distant, when we feel like we have lost touch with God, it is we who must turn back to God, because God never turns away from us. We always are the ones who walk away from God, and from one another. Because of the circumstances of life, we may feel abandoned by God, but God never really forsakes us. God is the father, who is like the father of the prodigal son. That son whose own personal desires drove him to abandon his relationship with his father and brother and go off and live it up. One day the young man came to his senses and found himself in the pigsty, and decided to come back to the family hoping to at least be a slave. His father saw him approach, and ran to him and embraced him.
His loving parent did not chastise the prodigal one, nor did he condemn him for his sinful ways, but rather he embraced the boy and restored him to wholeness in the family. The young man found the forgiveness available to him all along, even on the day he left his family behind. Nonetheless, the young man had to repent or rather, return, or more clearly, he had come back home to experience the grace available to him all along. Returning is the fruit of God’s grace enacted in us, through the healing and restoration of broken relationships, which causes that fruit to be born in us.
The God of Second, Third, and Unlimited Chances
Jesus said of the non-bearing fig tree, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'” Jesus’ parable of the fig tree reminds us of God’s unlimited grace, but do we offer that same grace to others? Too often people fail us and we are ready to write them off. We are disappointed by others sins and letdowns (especially if it is we clergy) and so, we want to end the relationship and move on. Maybe we are too quick to decide to chop down the non-fruit bearing relationships, which are taking up the valuable emotional soil in our lives. A friend overlooks your contributions to their project, you no longer feel valued by someone, you are hurt because the other person has been distracted by their own stuff, or maybe you had higher expectations of that person, which they could never live into. So, we cut the roots of the relational connection and walk away, but God teaches us another way.
Jesus says, “Hold off with that axe.” “Give them some more time.” he states. “Let me add some grace fertilizer to the soil of those relationships, and see what some time will do,” Jesus reassures us. Author Emily Freeman wrote, “God believes in second chances and even third chances. “He believes in moving past the mistake. He believes in helping us to become who he knows we can become.” God does not abandon us, but rather, God tends the soil of our relational lives, even when we would rather just let them wither and die. God is the cultivator of reconciling relationships, and God requires that become reconcilers as well.
God is with us, God has faith in us
God wants to set his people free from the bondage of our choices that often sever relationships with God and with each other. Like our brother Moses, God calls us to partner with him in that work of reconciling love, but we sometimes refuse or make excuses. Like Moses, when God calls us to return to the Way we may say, “What if they do not believe me or listen.” Maybe we just fail to realize that we have a part in the circumstances of the broken relationship.
This whole following Jesus thing is not about being in control of your life because you are not, but it has so much more to do with being vulnerable and open and willing to be changed by God. Jesus is always waiting for us to return, and with infinite patience, he wants us to return to one another, even when we are afraid of the change that reconciliation might create.
So, the heart of story of the fig tree is this, “Jesus is not seeking out a chance to cut us off at our knees when we turn away from him, when we are afraid because we are out of control, or when we sever a tie with someone. God is always making a way back home, by giving us opportunities to come back to love and mercy and grace, and for all us, to invite each other back into relationship with one another.
All of us need to take a long hard look in the mirror and rather than beating ourselves up for our sin, or beating each other up when we fail one another, we need to be reconcilers that turn back to relationships of trust and love. God is the God of infinite chances, but our struggle is not with God, it is often ourself. We have to ask ourselves whether, “we can be people of infinite chances for one another.”
Reconciling love begins with our own repentance, which is letting go of the self delusions of being right, and accepting the truth that we all need God’s grace. If we do that, we can bear some delightful fruit in our relationships with God and with one another. Repentance is not some guilt-laden task we do just during Lent. It can be a daily treat, or a spiritual Fig Newton, with its life-giving, ooey gooey, rich and chewy delicious fruit of forgiveness, mercy, and grace, all sandwiched between a golden flakey tender cakey outsideof God’s mission of reconciling love.